Polls in the time of pandemic
After hemming and hawing about holding local elections, top leaders of the five-party alliance that met on Tuesday finally made some headway.
The good news is that they said they were committed to holding the local polls “on time”. The bad news is that the parties were even thinking of postponing polls to suit their electoral prospects, even though that is entirely the purview of the Election Commission.
And who knows what they mean by “on time”? Nepali time is elastic.
The ‘high level political mechanism’ is an uber-government prone to bending the Constitution whichever way it suits them.
However, on elections, mechanism members are not united. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress wants to hold local polls as scheduled on 27 April, and this puts him closer to the opposition UML’s stand.
The JSP also wants the local polls in April, but the Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre and Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Unified Socialists being from fragments of larger parties, want more time to prepare for elections. And the pandemic has been the perfect pretext to argue for postponing it.
The other argument they are using is that elections are costly, and why not have all three tiers of elections in November?
There are differing provisions for local elections in Nepal’s Constitution and election laws. While Article 225 of the Constitution stipulates new local leaders be elected within six months after the terms of the current leaders expire, Nepal’s Local Level Election Act 2017 states that elections be held two months before the terms of the current representatives end.
Coalition leaders are said to be exploring the possibility of passing an ordinance to amend the local election law so that they can hold local elections when they see fit — which means later in the year.
That provisions for elections are inconsistent, subject to amendments at the convenience of political leaders, and that the Election Commission is unable to make an independent decision is emblematic of a failing state.
It shows just how centralised Nepal’s power structure is, and how blatant political interference in Constitutional bodies like the Election Commission has become.
Read also: Battle lines drawn for Nepal elections, Nepali Times
The differing positions within the governing coalition on proposed election dates have further exposed the volatile dynamics within the five-party coalition.
As it is, the governing coalition is already on thin ice due to differences over the US-supported MCC project, as well as over the Nepali Congress being disinclined to form an electoral alliance with coalition partners. Differences over MCC ratification by Parliament already threatens to split the coalition of which some members are said to be beholden to Chinese pressure.
But there are other more pressing matters. Parliament has not been able to sit and pass pending bills due to the UML not letting it function because of K P Oli’s grudge against Speaker Agni Sapkota over his refusal to expel former party members including Madhav Kumar Nepal.
The five-year terms of Nepal’s locally elected representatives, which began on 20 May 2017 are set to end on 19 May. Not holding these elections on time will undermine local governance because wards and municipalities will be left leaderless, delegitimising the country’s still fragile federal system.
Some of the smaller parties are already campaigning against federalism, and a gridlock in local elections could bolster their argument that the system is too costly and not suitable for Nepal.
As the highly transmissible Omicron strain spreads across the country and overwhelms Nepal’s limited healthcare infrastructure, Nepal’s villages and rural communities will need steady leadership more than ever.
The third wave has hit Nepal as the country enters the third year of the pandemic. During that time, power struggles at the top have largely paralysed the federal government’s response to the crisis.
However, at the local level many elected representatives have been leading from the frontlines to help constituents. This newspaper reported about mayors and ward chairs in Nawalpur and Khotang districts driving the sick to hospitals during the second wave. They set up local quarantine and isolation centres, and did not wait for Kathmandu to respond.
One of Nepal’s development success stories in the past 40 years was that local elections have ensured accountability and service delivery. The 2017 local polls were the first in 20 years, and not having elected local leaders cost the country two decades in lost development.
National leaders treating local elections as if it is just another power play will be a misdeed against the Nepali people.
Read also: Nepal’s rudderless political leadership, Santa Gaha Magar